Amy Hennig has been in the games industry for a while. Her work can be traced as far back to games like Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf — released in February 1992 — all the way to the Uncharted series of games (sans A Thief’s End). With her work spanning from the 20th century to the 21st, Hennig offered her take on the “massive layoffs,” AAA games, and outsourcing in a recent interview.
Before accepting the award honor at last month’s DICE Summit in Las Vegas, Hennig took up an interview with publication site gamesindustry.biz. The interview touches on a lot of things, but the main point is Hennig’s thoughts on how “things are clearly not working the way they used to” and that the shift to outsourcing “feels inevitable.”
The interview between Hennig and the publication outlet got on said topic upon talking about how some things don’t change and what was done in the past differently, as explained below:
“What doesn’t change is the challenge of trying to do a creative endeavor with a group of human beings, and that only gets more complicated as the teams have gotten bigger and bigger. In my career, I’ve gone from a two-person team to 15 or something, then 30, then 70, and up to now. It’s just insane, right? So we all have all the same flaws we have as human beings, and then it’s amplified by having a 300-person team versus a 10-person team.”
The dev with over 20 years of experience under her belt goes on to say:
“I personally needed a break from it, but in that break, it’s been an opportunity to say I’m not even sure it makes sense to do it that way. I think we keep doing it that way because we have these established companies and teams, and that’s a resource, an asset you don’t want to just throw away. But on the other hand, we’re seeing news stories left and right where developers are folding and publishers are laying off hundreds of people. It feels like something feels inevitable, because the cost of development and keeping all these people on staff, especially in expensive areas, just doesn’t feel sustainable.”
The publication site chimed in by bringing up the recent case of Activision-Blizzard and its 800 head layoff, to which Hennig elaborated:
“I feel like there are all these red flags, canary-in-the-mine moments where things are clearly not working the way they used to, or not working.”
Hennig looks to the TV and film industries as an alternative by saying:
“Obviously that would require a big sea change in the industry — probably towards unionization, too — but you would have a lot more external partners or freelance developers as part of a team, do more things as distributed development rather than have everything in-house, it would allow for a lot more flexibility rather than feeling that constant pressure, that churn of salaries.
And I think it would allow us a little more downtime, too. A lot of what we talk about with crunch pressure is not just the ambition of the titles, it’s also just the fact that these people are employees. So we said, ‘Thank God’ when DLC became a thing because there might be this huge dip of downtime where you might need 10 people but you have 300, so what are you going to do? They’re employees. Now we can shuffle those people onto DLC content, but even then that creates this crunch churn on the staff.”
Continuing on, Hennig feels that questions in this field need answers:
“If we’re in a studio system but we’re all free agents, what would that look like? This is all speculative, because we’re still living in a world where big companies have these giant staffs, but even so, we never really used to do external development. Everything we did was more-or-less in-house. And more and more — particularly for art, visual effects, and things like that — we are working with external vendors a lot. It wouldn’t be possible to make these big, impressive games if we weren’t.
So it feels like there’s already a move in that direction. Whether it just becomes that we still have big teams and more external partners or smaller teams and more things are externalized remains to be seen.”
The interview later depicts Hennig explaining how specialization of today has changed and developers of the past according to her knowledge were “jacks of all trades” due to the small headcount at a given studio:
“One of the things that’s changed is specialization. It used to be that we were all jacks of all trades, almost. You kind of had to be because your team was so small that if you couldn’t do art and design and layout and animation, title screen art or whatever needed to get done, there was nobody to hand it off to. It was easier back then, too. If you were an artist, you did everything. You did the characters, the animation, the background, whatever. Then slowly you start seeing specialization creep, and now you’ve got character artists who do nothing but skin textures, shaders or something like that. And somebody else does the actual model, somebody else rigs it, somebody else animates.
That alone creates a certain amount of bloat in your staff because you have so many specialists now instead of generalists. And those are the kinds of skills that would normally be outsourced because they’re so specialized. You don’t need that person working full-time, every day, all year long.”
The publication site wraps up the interview with Hennig disclosing the following information:
“That’s a shame, because I don’t want to see people lose their jobs. Even saying my desire is to work at a smaller studio, it’s not because I want to see the industry shrink and get outsourced; it just feels inevitable. And it feels more financially sound to partner up.”
With all of that said, what are your thoughts on her alternatives, and plans regarding the AAA industry?